Iraq will head to the polls on Sunday for early legislative elections, the fifth in the past 20 years. The poll comes two years after mass protests brought down the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi, but not before security forces and paramilitary groups killed more than 600 protesters.
Angry Iraqis were then calling for an end to the sectarian system that resulted in ethno-sectarian violence and the creation of a corrupt ruling class. Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi promised an early election after claims that the 2018 poll was rigged. He also delivered a new elections law designed to limit the domination of large political parties through a single-vote system.
The same class that has dominated the political scene for years is putting pressure on Al-Kadhimi to postpone the elections, but it is too late for him to back down. It is an understatement to say that this election will prove crucial for a country ripped apart by corruption, foreign meddling, paramilitary groups with direct links to Tehran, terrorism, political assassinations, and endemic financial problems.
More than 25 million Iraqi citizens have the right to vote, but experts believe there will be a historic low turnout. Unlike previous elections, Iraqis outside the country will not be allowed to vote. Candidates will contest 329 seats, 83 of which have been allocated to women and nine to minorities. More than 3,200 candidates are running, mostly under party lists and alliances. More than 780 candidates are standing as independents.
Traditional parties that have been at the center of the political scene for years are likely to gain the most. Activists who led the 2019 protests have chosen to boycott the poll. The main players hoping to make gains include the Sadrists, led by cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose bloc is expected to emerge as the biggest. Al-Sadr has galvanized support among impoverished Shiites, especially in urban centers, under a nationalist platform that wants to end Iranian influence, expel the US and fight rampant corruption.
The second group contesting the elections and whose political fate remains unknown is the pro-Iran paramilitary Fatah Alliance led by Hadi Al-Amiri. It includes the political wing of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, which the US has designated a terrorist organization, and also represents the Badr Organization, which has close ties to Tehran. Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq leader Qais Khazali this week warned of election fraud, a sign that the alliance may not repeat its 2018 success.
Analysts believe most Iraqis are fed up with pro-Iran militia groups and the government’s inability to control the extremists. The new election system, which favors local candidates, may entice voters to switch from traditional political figures, whom they accuse of corruption, to tribal leaders. Tribes play a major role in Iraq’s political system and for years tribal leaders have worked closely with the political elite to deliver selected candidates. This time the marriage of convenience may be over.
Shiite voters, especially in the impoverished south, believe they have been let down by traditional political leaders. They also blame successive governments for failing to improve their lives amid continuing high unemployment and poor public services.
Other Shiite political players contesting the election include a centrist alliance headed by former Prime Minister Haider Abadi and the Hikma Movement, led by moderate cleric Ammar Al-Hakim. Another ex-PM, Nouri Al-Maliki, the Dawa leader and head of the State of Law coalition, is a controversial figure blamed for corruption, sectarianism and allowing Daesh to take over a third of the country, and may be punished by voters this time around.
Sunni leaders are also divided, weakening their chances of an increased parliamentary share. The main player is Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed Al-Halbousi, who is leading the Taqaddum, or progress, alliance, which comprises several Sunni leaders from the Sunni-majority north and west of the country.
The Kurds will continue to emerge as a power broker, with two main parties contesting the poll: The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Analysts have warned that the elections, which will have 600 international observers, are likely to be marred by violence during and after the vote. But one thing is certain: The results will fall short of what Iraqi activists have called for since 2019. And if the pro-Iran militia candidates perform badly, they will do their utmost to overturn the results. Even if the results are accepted, it will take weeks and maybe months for rival blocs to agree on a new government.